Eisenberg: Another Testament to Recognizing and Developing Talent

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S DeShon Elliott & S Chuck Clark

With the release of Earl Thomas III, the Ravens aren't just hoping DeShon Elliott becomes the starter at free safety. They're expecting him to start.

I think it's worth taking a step back to think about exactly what they're saying with that.

They're already starting one safety who joined the team as a sixth-round draft pick. That's Chuck Clark, whose NFL career began as the No. 186-overall selection in the 2017 draft.

Now they're counting on Elliott, another former sixth-round pick. His pro career began when the Ravens took him with the No. 190-overall selection in 2018.

So … yes … let's think about that.

The Ravens are loaded, widely regarded as top-tier Super Bowl contenders. Their roster includes the reigning league MVP among a long list of Pro Bowlers and other top players.

In theory, amid such great expectations, it would seem a little dangerous for them to expect a pair of former sixth-round picks to hold up the back end of their defense. The sixth round is generally not where teams go to find load-bearing personnel.

But the Ravens have zero doubts about Clark, who has already signed a contract extension after emerging as a pivotal player in 2019. He calls the signals in the defensive huddle.

Elliott hasn't attained such heights yet, having been set back by injuries so far in his pro career. But when healthy, he has exhibited enough talent, energy and playmaking skills for the Ravens to expect him to rise to this occasion.

More than anything, it's a commentary on the organization's ability to recognize talent and develop quality players.

Any team can do it with higher-round picks, who possess more obvious talent. But not every team is so adept at turning lower-round picks and undrafted players into consequential pieces.

Of the Ravens' 13 Pro Bowl selections in 2019, three (Patrick Ricard, Justin Tucker and Morgan Cox) started out as undrafted rookies and another three (Mark Andrews, Marshal Yanda and Orlando Brown Jr.) were former third-round picks.

Another 2019 Pro Bowler, linebacker Matthew Judon, is a former fifth-round pick and the team's highest-paid player this year.

The Ravens' likely starting offensive line in 2020 includes guard Bradley Bozeman, a former sixth-round pick, and either Matt Skura or Patrick Mekari, both originally undrafted rookies, at center.

It's attributable to the building blocks of a solid organization. The Ravens' scouts are thorough, averse to groupthink and understand what the coaches want. The coaches understand that developing talent is just as important as finding it.

Plenty of picks and undrafted free agents don't pan out, of course. That's true for all teams in the draft, an imperfect exercise if ever one existed.

But with everyone in their organization on the same page, the Ravens have fashioned a stellar record of bargain shopping.

Their top slot cornerback, Tavon Young, was a fourth-round selection in 2016. Rugged tight end Nick Boyle, a key offensive contributor, was a fifth-round pick in 2015. Gus Edwards, who leads the team's running backs in rushing yardage since 2018, was originally an undrafted rookie.

When Terrell Suggs signed elsewhere last year after 16 great seasons in Baltimore, it eventually fell to a rookie taken in the third round, Jaylon Ferguson, to replace him. Pernell McPhee, a Ravens fifth-round pick in 2011, was the other part of the solution.

"It doesn't matter how you come into this league. It just matters what you take and what you do with your opportunity," Clark said Monday.

So maybe you can see why the Ravens aren't really blinking at having Elliott step in for Thomas in their marquee secondary, which features former first-round picks Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith.

Elliott was a marquee player himself in college, a first-team All-American as a junior at Texas. He slipped to the sixth round because some scouts questioned his individual cover skills.

But the Ravens saw a speedy, instinctive, hard-hitting guy who could play for them, and their opinion hasn't changed. They just hope he can stay healthy now that his opportunity has arrived, giving him a chance to join their roll call of late-round success stories.

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